Are Warp Drives Possible? Definitely Maybe, in Theory

The sci-fi idea of a “warp drive” is based on simple physics: nothing can move faster than the speed of light. (There may be exceptions, such as in certain kinds of quantum tunneling, but this seems unlikely.) So, if we want a vessel to travel faster than light, we need to create a bubble that warps the space around a vessel without actually affecting that vessel.

A theory of warp travel put forward by in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre would involve a football-shaped ship with a giant ring around it, perhaps made from some kind of exotic metal. Space-time would be warped around the ship: less in front, more behind, creating an envelope of warped space while leaving the ship in “normal” space. Space-time itself would then “push” the vessel forward.

As this article points out, Alcubierre’s model had issues, but some new ideas are being kicked around that may provide some answers:

With this concept, [Alcubierre's] spacecraft would be able to achieve an effective speed of about 10 times the speed of light, all without breaking the cosmic speed limit.

The only problem is, previous studies estimated the warp drive would require a minimum amount of energy about equal to the mass-energy of the planet Jupiter.

But recently White calculated what would happen if the shape of the ring encircling the spacecraft was adjusted into more of a rounded donut, as opposed to a flat ring. He found in that case, the warp drive could be powered by a mass about the size of a spacecraft like the Voyager 1 probe NASA launched in 1977.

Furthermore, if the intensity of the space warps can be oscillated over time, the energy required is reduced even more, White found.

“The findings I presented today change it from impractical to plausible and worth further investigation,” White told SPACE.com. “The additional energy reduction realized by oscillating the bubble intensity is an interesting conjecture that we will enjoy looking at in the lab.”

As Marc Millis points out here, space-time itself may be able to move faster than light, as it is may have done in the Big Bang, and that’s what would power a warp drive. Honestly, I think we’re more likely to power faster-than-light travel on the sheer improbability of a warp drive, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. It’s fascinating stuff that goes right to the origins of the universe.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • victor

    Warp drives are so ToS. Transwarp conduits are the new hotness!

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    ST: TNG is non-canonical.

  • http://metabooleans.blogspot.com/ Nick

    TNG is the best! How can you say that?! D:

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald
  • http://Www.professorwhimsey.com victor

    Picard? Oh, I was talking about Janeway/Voyager. Oh, that Neelix.

    Speaking of things that break the laws of time and space, I have lost more hours to this iOS game in the past four days than is possible: itunes.apple.com/us/app/10000000/id544385071?mt=8

  • JoFro

    OFF-TOPIC ALERT – Didnt know how else to contact you :(

    http://www.smh.com.au/world/was-jesus-married-new-papyrus-fragment-fuels-debate-20120919-265av.html

    Anything to say about this?

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

    Probably the best proposal yet was that of Mike Flynn in his January Dancer books: You never go faster than c, but c is arbitrarily high in some places, and this phenomenon forms in “rivers.”

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

    Not that this is the sort of thing fashioned by engineering but by the conceit of the worldbuilder. So … cross your fingers that it turns out to be true!

  • Paul Rodden

    Darn.
    I am just getting used to Flash Drives and some new-fangled thing might be coming out! How many Gigawotsits will it hold?

  • Harriet Bollox

    So it seems the Alcubierre Drive in science fiction works could become a reality. I find this exciting…for myself AND the human race. With this drive, we could finally reach and explore “The Final Frontier” and take our knowledge of the Universe to entirely new and higher levels than ever before.

  • victor

    We can’t even get back to the moon after 40 years so it’s unlikely even if the drive was possible to create that it’d get us anywhere other than deeper in debt. :-(

  • ivanhoe

    This new design certain has some Vulcan looking aspects to it.

  • http://n/a m e wood

    Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy qv
    “The Infinite Improbability Drive is a faster-than-light drive. The most prominent usage of the drive is in the starship Heart of Gold. It is based on a particular perception of quantum theory: a subatomic particle is most likely to be in a particular place, such as near the nucleus of an atom, but there is also a small probability of it being found very far from its point of origin (for example close to a distant star

  • Derrick

    Personally, I’m more interested in the idea of finding a dimension that has a much higher max speed, and none of that pesky mass increase stuff. Kinda like Star Wars hyperdrives.

    Of course, that’s probably an avenue even more impossible, but I will dream about it at least.

  • jotapecas67

    Interesting, so far scientist have manage to tunnel energy through matter. It is about time to start tunneling matter throughout energy. Like a new submarine this new transport it will be the subspace vehicle. :)


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